Tag Archives: Mishkan

Mishkan & the Kabbalah of Organ Systems

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins outlining the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile Tabernacle. As is well-known, the Mishkan was a microcosm of the universe, and also paralleled the human body and its components. Commenting on the construction materials listed at the start of the parasha, Midrash HaGadol states:

“Gold” is the soul; “silver”, the body; “copper”, the voice; “blue” [tekhelet], the veins; “purple”, the flesh; “red”, the blood; “flax”, the intestines; “goat hair”, the hair; “ram skins dyed red”, the skin of the face; “tachash skins”, the scalp; “shittim wood”, the bones; “oil for lighting”, the eyes; “spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense”, the nose, mouth and palate; “shoham stones and gemstones for setting”, the kidneys and the heart.

At the same time, we find that there were (not surprisingly) ten major components in the structure of the Mishkan: (1) the courtyard, (2) the laver for washing, (3) the sacrificial altar, (4) the inner “Holy” place, and its three components (5) the Table of Showbread, (6) Menorah, and (7) Incense Altar, followed by (8) the Veil, behind which was (9) the “Holy of Holies”, containing (10) the Ark of the Covenant. As with all tens in the Torah, they correspond to the Ten Sefirot. One way to parallel them to the Sefirot is as follows:

In mystical texts, the trifecta of Binah-Tiferet-Malkhut always represent divine space and Divine Presence. These neatly correspond to the three spaces within the Mishkan: the large and mostly empty courtyard is Malkhut, often described as an “empty” vessel, but also identified most closely with the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence of God as manifest in this lowest of worlds. As soon as a person entered the Mishkan, they would sense the Shekhinah in the courtyard. When one passed the next partition, they entered the Holy space, corresponding to Tiferet. Finally, the innermost sanctum of the Mishkan was the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, the space of which parallels lofty Binah.

Before performing their services, the kohanim first needed to wash in the copper laver. The purifying waters of the laver, of course, represent Chessed, always associated with pure water, kindness and positive energy. Following this, the kohanim could bring offerings on the sacrificial altar to atone for sins, representing the realm of Gevurah and Din, harsh severity and judgement, always associated with fire. Fittingly, this is the place of slaughtering and burning in the Mishkan.

Inside the Holy place, there were three structures. First and foremost was the Menorah, its eternal, ever-burning flames representative of eternal Netzach. The Menorah became a symbol of all of Israel, the oldest symbol of Judaism. It is indicative of our flame that shall never be extinguished, and that no matter how much we are oppressed, we emerge victorious. Opposite the Menorah stood the Shulchan, a table with twelve loaves of bread that remained miraculously fresh. This is symbolic of splendorous Hod. The root of Hod literally means to “acknowledge” and to “thank”, and the Torah commands that it is specifically after eating a bread-meal that we must recite birkat hamazon to thank God and acknowledge all the good that He bestows upon us. (Almost all other berakhot requirements are of rabbinic origin.) Last of the three structures in the Holy is the incense altar, facilitating atonement of the gravest sins, especially those in the sexual realm, associated with Yesod.

Then came the Holy of Holies, corresponding to the highest three Sefirot of the Mochin. The kohen gadol entered past the special Veil, paralleling Chokhmah, and stood before the Ark of the Covenant, representing the very Will of God, Keter. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments, inscribed with a total of 620 letters, the gematria of “Keter” (כתר)! From between the Cherubs above the Ark came the voice of God, revealing His Divine Will. Better yet, mystical texts speak of two higher energies emanating from Keter, called Ta’anug (“Pleasure”) and Emunah (“Faith”). This tie in neatly with the two other items in the Holy of Holies: the jar of manna, representing delicacy and Ta’anug; and the almond-rod of Aaron, representing true Emunah in God and His laws. The hidden Sefirah of Da’at was represented by the “Cloud” of God that descended upon the Tabernacle.

Tying this back to the beginning—the Mishkan as a model of the human body—we find that there are also ten organ systems in the human body that work together to keep us alive and functioning. These organ systems correspond to the Sefirot, too. Keter, the origin from which all the divine energy emerges, is often called the “skull”. It corresponds to the skeletal system that gives structure to the entire body, and without which the body would collapse and have no form or function. Chokhmah is the brain and the nervous system (self-explanatory).

Although Binah is a mental faculty, it is also associated with the heart. Today, scientists know that the heart has a neural network of its own, and may indeed play some role in our emotions and unconscious. The heart has even been called “the little brain” by some researchers. Thus, Binah is a fitting place for the circulatory system. Binah is described as the “mother” that gives birth to the Sefirot below and keeps them nourished. Similarly, the circulatory system delivers vital oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body.

It is intriguing to note here that Binah is considered a “feminine” Sefirah (being Ima, the “mother”) and we find that women have less issues with heart disease and cardiovascular disorders than men do. Meanwhile, Chokhmah is called the “father” and is a masculine quality, and studies show that women are three times more likely than men to have mental health issues! This gives us further evidence for seeing how the Sefirot manifest themselves in the organ systems of men and women.

The main interface between the nervous system and the circulatory system is the endocrine system, controlling the production and release of hormones. The endocrine system doesn’t actually have any major organs of its own, just a set of glands distributed around the body and overlapping with other systems (like the kidneys of the excretory system and the pancreas of the digestive system). The main control centre of the endocrine system is the brain’s hypothalamus, regulating which hormones get released into the bloodstream. Thus, the endocrine system bridges together the circulatory and the nervous systems—without having any specific organs of its own—nicely paralleling the hidden Da’at which bridges Chokhmah and Binah.

Next in the Sefirot is Chessed, associated with water and with excess and overflow (it is also known as Gedulah, “largesse”). This is the little-known lymphatic system of the body, which transports and regulates excess fluids around the body. The lymphatic system is also important in the development and transport of immune cells (lymphocytes) that protect the body from foreign invaders, another link to the protective energy of Chessed. Moreover, Chessed is typically associated with whiteness, like the milky lymph fluid and the immune system’s white blood cells. In the Mishkan, the laver of Chessed served to wash away germs and impurities (both spiritual and physical), another link to the germ-fighting power of the immune system and lymph nodes.

On the other side of Chessed is strict and fiery red Gevurah, “severity” and “strength”. This parallels the red musculature, the heaviest system in the body, and the one that burns the vast majority of the body’s energy. Like Gevurah, it is the muscles that give us strength. Fittingly, the meat of the sacrificial animal that was consumed in the Mishkan was, of course, muscle. Then comes Tiferet, associated with the element of air, and paralleling the respiratory system. Just as Tiferet plays a central role being in the middle of the Sefirot, and balances them all, the respiratory system is in the middle of the body, bringing in vital oxygen for every cell to stay alive. Tiferet is described as “God’s Throne”, where the Divine Light of Creation is concealed, and to which we all aspire. (The people and Land of Israel are rooted in Tiferet, as explored here.) It is the respiratory system that allows us to elevate our souls Heavenward, to have an “out-of-body experience”, whether through meditative breathwork or through (risky) shortcuts like inhaling various substances.

The dual Sefirot of Netzach and Hod are usually associated with the kidneys, and other filtering organs of the body. They neatly parallel the excretory (urinary) system and the digestive system, respectively. Netzach lies below watery Chessed (of the lymphatic system), and the kidneys filter the fluids in our bloodstream and work in tandem with the lymphatic system. In our prayers, we often speak of God “examining” or “testing” our kidneys (bochen klayot), and some might see in this a metaphor that whenever God gives us tests or tribulations, it is only to “purify” us, just as the kidneys do for the blood. This parallels what was said above about the Menorah as a victorious symbol of our ever-burning flame, despite the difficulties of our history.

Similarly, the digestive system of Hod nicely corresponds to the Shulchan and its loaves of bread in the Mishkan. Recall that Hod is the place of berakhot, through which we “acknowledge” and “thank” God—as mentioned above—and the most frequent way to do this is by reciting blessings on food for the digestive system! Hod lies beneath muscular Gevurah, and there is an important connection here: The digestive system depends on a network of involuntary smooth muscles to move food matter through the system (plus an extra layer of muscle around the stomach to “churn”). Without smooth muscles, digestion would be impossible.

In Kabbalistic texts, fiery Gevurah sometimes represents the entire left pillar of Binah-Gevurah-Hod, all of which is associated with redness and severity; while watery Chessed stands for the entire right pillar of Chokhmah-Chessed-Netzach, associated with whiteness and fluidity. With this in mind, it is especially appropriate that in the array of organ systems, the entire left side relies on red muscles (cardiac muscles of the heart for Binah, skeletal muscles for Gevurah, digestive smooth muscles for Hod); while the entire right side relies on fluids (cerebrospinal fluid for the nervous system of Chokhmah, lymph fluids for Chessed, blood plasma for the kidneys of Netzach).

Lastly, we have the reproductive system for Yesod (obviously), followed by the largest and most superficial integumentary system (of skin, hair, and nails) for lowliest and earthliest Malkhut. Just as skin envelops our bodies, curtains of animal skins enveloped the courtyard of the Mishkan, corresponding to Malkhut. In these ways, we can see how the ten organ systems of the human body neatly parallel the Ten Sefirot, and the ten components of the Mishkan—both a macrocosm of the human body and a microcosm of the universe. To summarize:

Body Piercings in Judaism

In the first of this week’s double parasha, Matot, we read about the tribute and offerings that the Israelite warriors brought to Moses and Elazar the Kohen Gadol following their wars of conquest. Among the jewellery we find “armlets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and pendants” (Numbers 31:50). Although the final word in this list, khumaz (כומז), is typically translated as “pendant”, its meaning is far more mysterious. Rashi says here that the khumaz was apparently a pendant in the shape of a womb, and by offering up these ornaments, the Israelites were atoning for the sexual sin previously committed with the Midianites.

Canaanite Jewellery from the Late Bronze Age, c. 13th century BCE (Credit: factsanddetails.com)

Long before this sin, in Exodus 35:22, we already saw how the Israelites donated their own jewellery for the construction of the Mishkan, and the khumaz appears there also as something offered by the righteous Israelite women. Rashi’s comment there is different, citing the Talmud (Shabbat 64a) that khumaz stands for kan makom zimah (כָּאן מְקוֹם זִמָּה), meaning that this jewellery was something placed on the reproductive organ and was used for “lewdness”! The shocking implication seems to be that this was a piercing in the nether regions.

Interestingly, the Talmud here also presents an opinion that ‘agil (עגיל), typically translated as an “earring”, was actually worn on the breasts, perhaps as a nipple ring, or a golden breastplate of some sort designed to accentuate a woman’s features for lewd purposes. The Talmud concludes the passage with Rav Sheshet saying that the Torah lists exposed ornaments (like bracelets and rings) with concealed ones (like the ‘agil and khumaz) to teach you that there is really no difference: a man that ogles at a woman’s exposed features and ornaments (even just a pinky finger!) is equated with one who ogles at her concealed features and is just as wicked.

The Riva (Rabbi Isaac ben Asher haLevi, c. 11th century), a disciple of Rashi and one of the Tosafists, asks how it is possible that a piercing or ornament of lewdness could be donated for a holy purpose? Similar objections were understandably shared by other commentators. This is why the Ibn Ezra says (on Exodus 35:22) the khumaz must simply be a bracelet for the upper arm. Another possibility was that it was indeed placed over the reproductive organ as the Talmud states, though not for lewdness, but for chastity. Perhaps the khumaz was like a “chastity belt” purportedly used in the Middle Ages to ensure a woman remains a virgin and/or to protect her from sexual harassment. The reality, however, is that there is no physical evidence that such belts ever existed, nor can anyone explain how they might have been comfortably worn or how they would have been kept locked in place without the option of easily removing them. Scholars relegate chastity belts to the realm of myth.

The best explanation is probably that the Israelite women only had those types of lewd ornaments and pieces of jewellery because they were taken from the Egyptians. Recall that the Israelites received gifts and riches from the Egyptians as they left (Exodus 12:35-36). So, it is these pagan ornaments that they repurposed for use in the holy Mishkan. (We might conclude that, in so doing, they were able to affect a tikkun, a spiritual rectification.) The Israelite women themselves probably never wore them. And if they did, it begs the question: what is actually permitted halakhically today when it comes to bodily piercings?

The first piercing that comes to mind is earrings, which we know must be fine. Then come nose rings, which we might assume are not fine. Yet, the reality in ancient Israel may very well have been the opposite. We read, for instance, how Eliezer brought Rebecca a nose ring as a gift (Genesis 24:22 and 47). For those who might argue that this was before the giving of the Torah, and since then nose rings are no longer permissible, the Talmud (Sotah 7b) states that a sotah who was suspected of being an adulteress had to remove her nose ring, meaning they were common among Israelite women at least up to the Talmudic era.

The Talmud there mentions three specific types of ornaments: finger rings, nose rings, and necklaces or “chokers” worn close around the neck. Note how earrings are strangely not mentioned, suggesting that nose rings were more popular among Israelite women at the time. Indeed, the Torah suggests that earrings may have been associated with slavery, as we read how one who wished to be a permanent slave needed to have their ear punctured with an awl (Exodus 21:6). There is a big question if the slave actually had to wear an earring afterwards, or if he only required to have his ear punctured once symbolically. Most likely, he did have to wear an earring to identify him as a permanent slave, and the earring may have even identified to whom he belonged. The Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) has an opinion that the puncturing was done specifically in the upper ear, so perhaps there is a difference between an earring on the earlobe for beauty, versus an earing on the upper ear cartilage to indicate slavery.

The 24 Ornaments of a Jewish Bride

As explored in the past, the Torah gives us 24 ornaments that an Israelite bride would be adorned with in ancient times. The prophet Isaiah lists them in the third chapter of his book, and they are:

  1. anklets [‘achasim] עֲכָסִ֛ים
  2. ribbons (or headbands) [shvisim] שְּׁבִיסִ֖ים
  3. crescents [saharonim] שַּׂהֲרֹנִֽים
  4. pendants (or earrings) [netifot] נְּטִפ֥וֹת
  5. bracelets [sheyrot] שֵּׁיר֖וֹת
  6. veils [ra’alot] רְעָלֽוֹת
  7. headdresses [pe’erim] פְּאֵרִ֤ים
  8. armlets [tza’adot] צְּעָדוֹת֙
  9. sashes [kishurim] קִּשֻּׁרִ֔ים
  10. corselettes (or talismans) [batei hanefesh] בָתֵּ֥י הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ
  11. amulets [lehashim] לְּחָשִֽׁים
  12. rings [taba’ot] טַּבָּע֖וֹת
  13. nose-rings [nizmei ha’af] נִזְמֵ֥י הָאָֽף
  14. aprons (or festive robes) [mahalatzot] מַּֽחֲלָצוֹת֙
  15. shawls [ma’atafot] מַּ֣עֲטָפ֔וֹת
  16. hair-coverings [mitpachot] מִּטְפָּח֖וֹת
  17. girdles (or purses) [charitim] חֲרִיטִֽים
  18. robes (or gowns) [gilyonim] גִּלְיֹנִים֙
  19. fine linen (or linen vests) [sadinim] סְּדִינִ֔ים
  20. headscarves (or kerchiefs) [tzenifot] צְּנִיפ֖וֹת
  21. mantles (or capes) [redimim] רְדִידִֽים
  22. perfume [bosem] בֹּ֜שֶׂם
  23. belt (or apron) [chagorah] חֲגוֹרָ֤ה
  24. hair curls or braids [petigil] פְּתִיגִ֖יל

In this list, we see no mention of the ‘agil or khumaz, lending further evidence that these really were inappropriate piercings. We do have netifot, literally “drops”, which some interpret to mean earrings that are like droplets hanging from the earlobes. The only other piercing mentioned is, once again, the nose ring. The term used is nezem af, with the second word seemingly superfluous. If nezem already means a “nose ring” then why add af, “nose”?

This dilemma might be solved by looking at the Golden Calf incident. Recall that Aaron had told the men to “take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives…” (Exodus 32:2) The term for “gold rings” is nizmei hazahav (נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב), but Aaron says to remove them off of their ears! So, a nezem might be referring to any piercing, whether on the nose, ears, or otherwise. Finally, in Ezekiel 16:11 (which parallels Isaiah 3, above) we read that God bedecked the Jewish people with “a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a splendid tiara on your head.” Here, a nezem is clearly a nose ring and ‘agilim are undoubtedly earrings. So, a Jewish women could sport a modest nose ring and earrings, but other piercings are unlikely to be kosher.

On the whole, there are three major things to consider regarding piercings: first is tzniut, that the piercing should be elegant and modest. Second is darkei Emori, the prohibition of imitating pagan practices. If the piercing is a type that is widely acceptable and universal, like earrings or nose rings, then it is most likely okay, while if it is clearly associated with pagan or gentile practices, then it is not okay. Lastly, there is the issue of beged ishah, that men cannot adorn themselves in the manner of women. Since piercings are generally considered a woman’s form of adornment, they would be entirely prohibited for Jewish men. This is all the more important today, when secular society seeks to completely blur the gender gaps, so we should be all the more punctilious in clearly defining and differentiating between men and women.

Shabbat Shalom!

Things You Didn’t About King Solomon

A Modern Replica of the Mishkan in Timna, Israel

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins the Torah’s lengthy descriptions of the Mishkan, the “mobile sanctuary” or “tabernacle”. Fittingly, the Haftarah is a passage from I Kings describing King Solomon’s construction of the Jerusalem Temple, the permanent version of the Mishkan. Once the Temple was completed, it seems that Solomon actually brought the original Mishkan into the Temple and “parked” it there (I Kings 8:4-6). As per tradition, Solomon foresaw the future destruction of his own Temple, and made sure to build a secret chamber within the Temple Mount to hide the Ark of the Covenant and the original Mishkan vessels there, for safekeeping until the Final Redemption and the Third Temple.

The basic details of his biography are well-known: he reigned as king of a unified Israel for 40 years in a peaceful era (alluded to by his name, Shlomo, meaning “peace”); he had many wives and concubines; and he wrote three books of Tanakh: Mishlei (“Proverbs”), Kohelet (“Ecclesiastes”), and Shir haShirim (“Song of Songs”). What else do we know about this enigmatic king? Some of the lesser-known details will surely surprise you! Continue reading